Reinvented time and again, the Western is perhaps the most pliable of cinematic genres. Dead Man and Jeremiah Johnson subverted the classic hero/villain dynamic. Deadwood wallowed in the muck of frontier life while 3:10 to Yuma relished the kinetic precision of the shootout. No Country for Old Men pondered the Western landscape with an aloof gaze, while Brokeback Mountain eroticized it. But only Kelly Reichardt would have thought to direct a film that dispenses altogether with what has been nearly every Western’s narrative lynchpin: the dramatic climax. What’s left is a cinematic expression of emptiness, a moving meditation on open space.
With Meek’s Cutoff, the director has added another keenly observational and unhurriedly plotted film to her impressive oeuvre. In 1845, during the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, a wagon team of three families wends its way slowly, ever so slowly, through a parched, dissolute landscape. They appear to be lost. What happens is not much, and even less is said as the emigrants face the vagaries of deprivation and the encroaching terrors of faithlessness.
Ponderous? Dull? Not according to the film’s—and the director’s— growing legions of fans. Few American directors have the guts to hold a shot as long as Reichardt. Her patient gaze can transform a monotonous landscape into something trenchant and loaded. It’s not surprising that she cites among her influences Robert Adams, whose “new topographic” photography of the 1970s and ’80s kicked the legs out from under the cherished American ideal of Manifest Destiny and laid bare the fallacy that the American West represents an unlimited natural resource for human consumption.
In a Reichardt film there’s little foregrounding of plot; as in Wendy & Lucy, we drop in on our hapless travelers almost as if by chance. Michelle Williams’ understated performance as the unflappable Emily Tetherow—whose simmering discontent with her circumstances drives her to take the reins of the story at a critical moment—is a study in restraint. Like the other wives, she works a little bit harder than her husband, gathering wood and making the bread after a long day on the trail. In her blinder-like bonnet, Emily largely keeps her thoughts to herself; even so, through William’s tough, economical performance we detect a keen intelligence and a strategic forbearance. It’s by no means a star turn for Williams. To the contrary she, like nearly everything else, fades into the landscape.
As the emigrants near the end of their food and water supply, a lone Cuyuse man is captured by the men in the group. Unable to understand a word that he says, the leery settlers decide to let him lead them, hoping that he will take them to water. Things go from bad to worse, but the most violent scene in the entire film shows a runaway wagon getting dashed to bits in a ravine. When their hired guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) moves to hang the mysterious captive as punishment for the spate of bud luck, Emily levels a shotgun at him and advises, “You’d best be wary.”
In this world, a sustained sense of wariness may just be the thing that saves you. As for Reichardt, a woman director tackling a genre that carries a lot of macho baggage, she also treads carefully and deliberately. Stripping away any expectation for climactic moments, bravado or gunplay, she instead offers slow-building tension without release. No crescendos here. It’s all pregnant pauses, overheard murmurs and figures surveyed from a distance.
This reductive approach is heightened by Reichardt’s decision to use a much-reduced aspect ratio for the film; like the earliest Westerns, Meek’s Cutoff is more square than horizontal. This surprising choice contributes to the feeling of confinement felt by these hardscrabble women as they strive to find their footing in an alien world, and allows Reichardt to lay claim to a unique contemporary aesthetic that evokes far more than it reveals.
In the end, what makes this minimalist masterpiece so intriguing is what happens beyond the frame, what’s not said, what’s left unresolved. Crafting her film into a delicious slippery cipher, Reichardt has created a work that cunningly implies meaning but leaves audiences to do the heavy lifting of figuring out what it’s all about. One thing’s for certain: the thinking woman’s Western has arrived.
Meek's Cutoff plays Landmark Theatres in the Bay Area beginning May 6.
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